As the year gets older, darkness fills more and more of the day. Right now, the sun rises at eight o’clock in the morning and sets again about half past three in the afternoon, though even between these hours daylight can sometimes seem pallid and weak, infected with a kind of grim lethargy that fails ever to lift itself out of the shadows. By late December, another ninety minutes or so will have disappeared into the night.
Between three and four o’clock in the afternoon, as the air pales and the trees blacken against the sky, I have taken to standing outside for a moment to listen as a frantic dusk chorus sharpens the soft edges of the day.
At first it is the crows that come, wheeling in from around the valley and calling as they settle down among the branches. Then, from every direction, scores of thrushes – mostly blackbirds, with redwings and fieldfares among them. Silhouetted in the murky light, the birds arrive, flapping impatiently into the safety of the garden. The sound of them lifts from the trees like rowdy restaurant chatter. One evening , amid that glorious din, an owl ghosted silently above me and then was gone, as though it might never have existed at all.
From four o’clock, night thickens and the world closes around us. To be outside is to be somewhere new, in which we humans are rather improperly equipped. A torch now sits beside the front door to compensate for this inadequacy, and to make journeys to and from the house somewhat less hazardous. The electric beam opens a narrow space in which we can move without impediment and pretend to ourselves that we are not out of place in this nocturnal world.
Yet even at this time of year there are nights when, lit by moon or stars, the claustrophobic blackness is lifted and the universe is suddenly bigger than ever it is in the day.
Tonight, on my way back from the shed with a basket of wood for the fire, I stopped on the grass beside the greenhouse and stood still. Facing east, I could see lights from the houses across the valley shining like earthbound constellations against the darkness of the hill. Above them, the moon glowed brightly, highlighting the grey smudges upon its surface. Two days past full, only a slight fuzz at the right edge blemished an otherwise perfect circle.
Between earth and moon, a long thin cloud stretched out like a swimming seal, with a smaller partner following close behind. Besides these, the sky was clear and pale, infused with a colour quite unlike anything ever seen in the daytime. It was, perhaps, like the deepest blue silk held up against a dimly lit window, permitting only a thin blush of light to penetrate. But it was not really like that at all.
Around me, the garden was lit up enough to find my way without fear of mishap, enough to read back these notes as I scribbled them, childlike, across the page. It was bright enough that, standing there, I cast a long shadow over the lawn (suddenly I imagined Cat Stevens singing, entirely against my will).
In the night time, sounds untangle and identify themselves in a way not required at other times. And even then, in that strange light, I could hear what might go unheard in the day. There was the loch lapping against the bank below the trees; the purr of a wind turbine turning just up the road; the bustle and thrum of wings among the branches; and though it was almost calm, there was the white noise of water and air moving in the same direction that is the constant background to life this close to the sea.
As I turned towards the house, a shooting star blazed for an instant above me. Always they seem to move at the edge of vision, and are gone so fast that, like the owl, I can hardly be sure they were ever there at all. Looking up, tiny sparks were rising from our newly-swept chimney, glittering golden yellow as they danced and faded in the night.